Having now read all 154 of the sonnets, I can confidently say that you have probably already heard the good ones. You know, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ (18) or ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ (116) or ‘Being your slave, what should I do but tend’ (57).
Not, for example, 143, wherein the Dark Lady is represented as running after the Fair Youth like a farmer’s wife chasing a goose around a yard:
Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe and makes an swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent;
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind:
So will I pray that thou mayst have thy ‘Will,’
If thou turn back, and my loud crying still.
Note that Shakespeare is the baby left crying on the ground. Whoah, yeah, Will, bringin’ sexy back.
Auden makes much of the confessional frankness of the sonnets in order to argue that Shakespeare cannot have intended them to be published, and not just because of the matter of the Bard’s sexuality, which I think could best be described as queer as fuck.
He says, for instance, that no-one, having written sonnet 57 could bear to have others read it. There’s something to this argument, although, as always with Auden’s criticism, ‘no-one’ should be read as ‘no rather shy Englishman of the upper middle classes’. But even considered as private communications they are still very weird. How would you feel if someone had a crush on you and expressed it by writing you not one or two, but dozens upon dozens of sonnets? I found the following story in David Cecil’s biography of Max Beerbohm:
One afternoon sitting out with Elisabeth, he noticed a procession of coloured caterpillars wriggling along the sunlit balustrade. ‘They remind me of Shakespeare’s sonnets,’ Max said. ‘Each so beautiful and each a little unpleasant.’